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The Neuroscience Of Emotional Intelligence?

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.” Dale Carnegie

Leadership is about getting the job done through people. This means that without people, leadership is not complete. A true leader is therefore a person who is able to connect with people to get the job done. So, while journalists may need a “nose for news” successful leaders must have a knack for connecting with people and for building and managing lasting relationships. Leadership is all about genuine, strong and lasting relationships. Robert MacNamara once said, “Brains are like hearts, they go where they are appreciated.” Oh, I so love these words. This means that the only way to change someone’s mind is to connect with them from the heart.

What really makes leaders lack this very important skill of connecting with people? As someone who works with corporate leaders, helping them move from leadership mental darkness into leadership mental light through the vehicle called – ‘Veli Ndaba Neuro Engineering Leadership Effect’ #VNNLE – where I apply neuroscience and engineering principles in changing leadership and leadership cultures, I saw it very important to share some insights on the neurology of emotions. With my mechanical engineering background, I’ve always been very curious, I always wanted to know about the science of things and without a doubt, this led me to neuroscience, the science and mechanics of the brain and what really makes it tick.

Our brains are swimming in chemicals called neurochemicals. These chemicals have a huge influence in our thoughts, behaviour and actions. So, it’s important to always to look at the source. When you look at the neurology of it, the pre-frontal cortex/lobes is where the abstract, critical thinking happens. In terms of comparing us, human-beings, with other primates like apes, chimpanzees, monkeys – we’ve got the largest mass of pre-frontal cortex in order to have the capacity to do the critical thinking. Then we have the emotional centre of the brain called the limbic system. Within this emotional centre of the brain, we have amygdala which is often blamed for being this naughty thing member of the family that creates the hijack. When an emotion hits you, it registers in your limbic system. By the way, a lot of mammals have a pretty highly developed limbic system, for an example dogs. They experienced emotions too, just like us. This happens because the limbic system takes over. When the dog is happy, it wags its tail. This kind of stuff comes from emotional feelings in the limbic system or emotional centre.

Both your pre-fontal cortex, which is your advanced critical thinking brain and your limbic system/emotional brain are supposed to work together as one brain, but if you are not emotionally intelligent, often these parts of your brain will sabotage each other. These two parts of the brain work like a see-saw, when one is fully active, the other is less active. When you are highly engaged in a certain thought or idea e.g. analysing numbers in a spreadsheet or solving a complex problem, your emotions are at their lowest, they are almost not there. Also, when you are highly emotionally charged – happy, sad or upset – your critical thinking abilities are sabotaged, they take a weekend off! This is shown when a person says something they regret later. The amygdala, that part of the emotional brain/limbic system, is very irrational. This brain family member is known for their hijacking tendencies. This brain member is the one responsible for Fight, Flight or Freeze activities. This member requires a lot of training and guidance to behave accordingly. She does all this to save us from getting hurt, that’s her good intention.

When you feel happy, motivated, etc – happy neurochemicals like dopamine is released, helping your thinking brain to function effectively. On the other hand, when you are feeling angry and stressed, hormones like cortisol is released into your blood stream causing your heart to beat faster, sudden increase in blood pressure, sweating, suspension of digestive system and immune system, etc which has a detrimental effect on a person’s well-being overtime. I unpack this more on my Neuro Engineering Leadership programs and talks to help leaders understand themselves better in order to improve their leadership effectiveness and organizational culture.

With this background I’ve laid above, you can clearly see why I always emphasize the importance of self-awareness. Anthony De Mello puts it succinctly, “To recognize that my upsets come from myself is the first step to remedying them.” Self-awareness is about knowing what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it. This is the basis of good intuition and good decision-making. One of the major breakthrough in neuroscience using fMRI scans was the 90- second rule,  a critical technique for self-control. According to Harvard brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, “ninety seconds is all it takes to identify an emotion and allow it to dissipate while you simply notice it. When you’re stressed, pausing ninety seconds and labelling what you’re feeling (e.g. I’m getting angry), tamps down activity in the amygdala.”

We’ve all had the experience of a situation or a person setting us off. A rude comment, bad news, something breaks us down, an unexpected inconvenience, and we lose our temper. It’s not because we have bad luck or life has a vendetta against us. Why, then? When someone or something sets us off, it’s because we don’t posses the impulse control or we’re not aware of another way to respond to the upsetting situation.

Now that I’ve taken you through this short and insightful journey about the brain parts that are responsible for our emotions, actions and behaviour, I’m certain you’ll agree with me that we all have the ability to regulate our neurological process by using the 90-second rule. When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens; any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.

Now that you know something about the science and the mechanics of emotions, you can start on a new path of improving your leadership journey and mastering the art of connections. For more, let me take your leadership team through the ‘Veli Ndaba Neuro Engineering Leadership Effect’ #VNNLE and help it create a Peak  Performance Culture in your organization.

Veli Ndaba is a NeuroEngineering Leadership Effect Speaker and Trainer, Brain Coach and Author of four books (You Are Born to Win, Your Dream is Calling You and SWITCH ON! And Set Your Soul On Fire!) and Newspaper Columnist. To book him to speak at your next event or to help you and your team unleash your greatness, contact him on, or +27 83 304 9773